All Rivers Run to the Sea
Autobiographies pour out names and faces. Memoirs are detailed by encounters large and small. While conforming to those conventions, this book is unconventional. It is distinctive not only because Elie Wiesel recalls extraordinary encounters and remembers striking names and faces, but especially because this work shows how his remarkable moral and spiritual outlook emerged from the twentieth century’s greatest darkness.
Intertwined, three fundamental facts pulse at the heart of Wiesel’s story. He is a Jew, a writer, and a survivor of the Holocaust, which was the systematic, state-sponsored persecution and murder of nearly six million Jews by Nazi Germany and its collaborators. Wiesel weaves the particularity of his life into the fabric of twentieth century history, which has been ripped by unprecedented mass murder and torn by immeasurable human suffering.
One day when he was eight years old, Wiesel accompanied his mother, Sarah, when she went to see her rabbi. After speaking to her in the boy’s presence, Rabbi Israel spent time with him alone. What was he learning about Judaism, the old man wanted to know. After the young Wiesel responded, Rabbi Israel spoke to his mother again—this time privately.
When Sarah Wiesel emerged from that encounter, she was sobbing. Try as he might, Elie Wiesel never persuaded her to say why. Twenty-five years later, and almost by chance, he learned the reason for his mother’s tears. Anshel Feig, a relative in whom Wiesel’s mother had confided on that day, told him that Elie’s mother had heard the old rabbi say, “Sarah, know that your son will become a gadol b’Israel, a great man in Israel, but neither you nor I will live to see the day. That’s why I’m telling you now.”
Wiesel tells this story early in his memoirs. It reveals much about him and sets the autobiography’s tone. For Wiesel, stories are important because they raise questions. Wiesel’s questions, in turn, lead not so much to answers as to other stories. Typically, autobiographies settle issues; memoirs put matters to rest. Wiesel, however, has a different plan for this book, as well as for its projected second volume. His storytelling invites readers to share his questions, but the questions his stories provoke do not produce indifference and despair. Instead they lead to more stories and further questions that encourage protest against those conditions.
Wiesel’s life makes him wonder—sometimes in anger, frequently in awe, often in sadness, but always in ways that intensify memory so that bitterness can be avoided, hatred resisted, truth defended, and justice served. The stories within Wiesel’s story can affect his readers in the same way.
Rabbi Israel was right about Elie Wiesel. The shy, religious Jewish boy grew up to become an acclaimed author, a charismatic speaker, and a dedicated humanitarian. In 1986, he received the Nobel Peace Prize, one of the world’s highest honors. In his particularity as a Jew—it includes dedicated compassion for Jews who suffered under Soviet rule and passionate loyalty to Israel—as well as in his universality as a human being, Wiesel qualifies as “a great man.”
Rabbi Israel was also right about Sarah Wiesel. Neither she, nor Rabbi Israel, nor Wiesel’s beloved father, Shlomo, lived to see his major accomplishments. Wiesel insists that none of his success is worth the violence unleashed, the losses incurred, the innocence demolished in a lifetime measured not simply by past, present, and future, but through time broken before, during, and after Auschwitz. He would be the first to say that it would have been better if his cherished little sister, Tsiporah, had lived and all of his many books had gone unwritten, for in that case the Holocaust might not have happened. Wiesel’s honors weigh heavily upon him. They are inseparable from a question that will not go away: How can I justify my survival when my family and my world were destroyed?
Wiesel did not expect to survive the Holocaust. To this day, he wonders how and why he did. At the same time, his Jewish tradition and his own experience underscore that events never happen purely by accident. And yet—Wiesel’s two favorite words—especially where the Holocaust is concerned, the fact that events are linked by more than chance does not mean that everything can be explained or understood, at least not completely. Only by testifying about what happened in the Holocaust, only by bearing witness as truthfully and persistently as possible about what was lost, does Wiesel find that his survival makes sense. Yet the sense that it makes can never be enough to remove the scarring question marks that the Holocaust has burned forever into humanity’s history and God’s creation.
Wiesel’s memoirs are not triumphal vindications. They are drenched in sadness and melancholy. Yet sadness and melancholy, and the despair to which they might yield, are not their last words. Out of them Wiesel forges something much more affirmative. Optimism, faith, hope—those words are too facile to contain his outlook. Defiance, resistance, protest—those terms come closer, but even they have to be supplemented by an emphasis on friendship, dialogue, reaching out to others, helping people in need, working to make people free, and striving to mend the world.
This book’s greatest contribution is ethical and spiritual. It shows how Wiesel found ways to transform his suffering into sharing, his pain into caring. These transformations do not mean that Wiesel forgives any more than he forgets. The Holocaust was too immense, too devastating, to be redeemed by forgiveness that God or anyone else can give. Because the world has been shattered so severely, Wiesel believes that the moral imperative is to do all that one can to repair it. Otherwise, hatred and death win victories they never deserve.
In 1964, Elie Wiesel revisited his hometown. For more than one reason, his return to Sighet, that place in Eastern Europe where Sarah Wiesel and Rabbi Israel had their fateful conversation, was anything but easy. After his liberation from Buchenwald in April of 1945, Wiesel had gone to France, where he eventually became a reporter for an Israeli...
(The entire section is 2555 words.)